Thursday, November 10, 2011

Needlework for a Fashionable Lady: Whitework Reticules, c. 1812

Thursday, November 10, 2011
Susan reporting:

As promised, I'm sharing two more examples of the gorgeous needlework currently on display in the exhibition With Cunning Needle at Winterthur Museum (remember this young sailor's uniform?) These two drawstring bags, or reticules in Regency-era parlance, are exquisite examples of a style of embroidery known as whitework. It's easy to understand why: white cotton thread was used to embroider on fine white linen or cotton muslin cloth. The purity of this work showed off perfect stitches and elegant designs, and was considered an ideal pastime for ladies. (Click on the pictures to enlarge for details.)

While whitework has a long history – historians trace its origins back to ancient Egypt – it was most popular in England and America in the late 18th c and early 19th c., coinciding with the fashion for white muslin and linen gowns. Whitework is something of a catch-all term, referring to the materials and the effect rather than to a specific technique, and a whitework piece could include traditional embroidery stitches as well as lace-making skills such as cutwork.  Whitework could enhance personal accessories, like these reticules, as well as for scarves, cuffs and collars, and handkerchiefs, or household linens like tablecloths and bed linens. It could also be used to embellish an otherwise plain gown, such as this one (click on the last photo to see a detail of the embroidered fabric.)

These two reticules were made by Mary Greenough and Sarah Greenough in 1812. While Mary and Sarah were American, they were obviously well aware of fashions coming from England, and these reticules would have been as at home in London or Bath as they doubtless were in Philadelphia and Boston.

But just as the simple white gowns of the Regency gave way to the richer fabrics and more elaborate styles of the Victorian era, so, too, did whitework slip from fashion. Ladies turned to the vibrant colors of the Berlin wools being imported from Germany, and preferred the more regimented stitching of canvas work, or needlepoint. Fine whitework was relegated to handkerchiefs and infants' and children's clothing, and by the middle of the 20th c., it was largely replaced even on those humble garments by commercial machine embroidery.

Yet whitework isn't an entirely lost art, as the millions who watched the Royal Wedding last spring can attest. Kate Middleton's wedding dress and veil were a virtuoso display of whitework at its very best, executed by the master needleworkers of the Royal School of Needlework.

Good news for those of you who can't visit Winterthur and this extraordinary exhibition! The museum has put the lavishly illustrated catalogue on-line as a PDF. Click here to download.

Above: Drawstring bags (reticules), worked by Mary Greenough and Sarah Greenough, United States, 1812, Winterthur Museum, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont.


Sarah said...

Absolutely exquisite!

Carol H. said...

Absolutely loved the Winterthur needlework exhibition. Thank you! One question, I did not notice any southern needlework. Did I miss something wonderful? I know there were female academies in the south that taught fancy needlework and painting on silk because I have a needlework piece worked at Salem Girls Boarding School in 1811 by an ancestor. There was more to early America than just New England, as wonderful as it was!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Carol, I agree - the women from the southern colonies/states created magnificent pieces, too. For that matter, the same can be said of the entire world - needleworkers seem to be a wonderfully inspired group, no matter where they live.

Since the Winterthur show is drawn largely from the museum's own collection, I suspect the focus on Philadelphia-area pieces is more a reflection of what they own rather than a conscious effort to exclude other regions. While the museum continues to add to the collection, it remains heavily influenced by tastes and interests of its founder, Henry Francis du Pont.

How fortunate you are to have the Salem Boarding School piece by your ancestor! That's a real treasure.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Thank you so much for posting the link to the Winterthur Needlework Exhibition catalogue. It is absolutely wonderful, a great resource. I would not have been aware of it, but for your mention. Thanks again!

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